CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

1930 hours, September 12,2552 (revised date, MilitaryCalendar)\Captured Covenant flagship Ascendant Justice, in Slipspace en route to Eridanus system.

Black space churned with pinpricks of light; it split, and the Gettysburg-Ascendant Justice appeared in the Eridanus system.

The Master Chief stood on the Gettysburg's bridge. He'd wanted to be on the medical deck when Dr. Halsey had finished with Linda, be there when she woke up . . . or be there in case she never woke up. But he had to be here; this was his idea, and he was the closest thing they had to an expert on this place.

"Systems check," Admiral Whitcomb ordered.

Lieutenant Haverson leaned over the ops console and flicked through several screens. "Residual radiation fading," he said. "Navigation systems and scanners coming back online."

Fred stood at the Engineering station and reported, "Reactors at sixty percent. Slight hysteresis leak in coil ten. Compensating." "Plasma?" the Admiral asked as he settled into the Captain's chair. Cortana's ghostly image flickered onto the holographic pad next to the star chart.

"We can fire only one turret," she replied, and a wash of red flashed across her image then cooled to its normal deep blue. "The other two functional turrets are offline; their magnetic coils refuse to align. It might be a side effect of the artifact's radiation."

"One shot. . . " the Admiral muttered. He tugged on the end of his mustache and sighed. "Then we'll just have to make it count." He turned to the Master Chief. "Lead the way, son."

The Master Chief stared at the three large monitors that had replaced the bridge's observation windows. Eridanus blazed in the center of one display; stars shone with a steady brilliance. "Move us one-point-five astronomical units relative to the sun," he said. "Heading zero-nine-zero by zero-four-five."

"Destination one-point-five AU," Haverson said. "Heading confirmed. Coming about."

"Plot an elliptical course parallel to the plane of the asteroid belt," the Master Chief added. "Cortana, scan for asteroids approximately two kilometers in diameter."

"Scanning," she said. "This might take some time. There are more than a billion moving objects, some of them in deep shadow."

"Tell me again about your old mission," Admiral Whitcomb said. "You and the other Spartans were here before?"

"Yes, sir," the Chief replied. "Myself, Fred, Linda, Kelly, and Sam. It was the Spartans' first real mission: an infiltration into a rebel base. We captured their leader and got him to ONI for debriefing."

"I didn't even know the Spartans were around in 2525," Lieutenant Haverson said.

"Yes, sir," Fred answered. "We just didn't have MJOLNIR armor or the advanced weaponry we have today. We looked like any other NavSpecWar team."

"I very much doubt that," Haverson said under his breath.

The Admiral raised one bushy eyebrow. "You mean five people made a zero-gee vacuum infiltration onto this space station? And then exfiltrated with a prisoner who happened to be the guy in charge of the place?"

"Yes, sir. That was the basic plan."

"I suppose it went off without a hitch?"

The Master Chief was silent for a moment as he remembered the dozens of dead people they had left behind on that base ... and he felt a pang of regret. At the time he hadn't thought twice about removing any obstacle that would have compromised his mission, human or otherwise. Now, after fighting for humanity for two decades, he wondered if he could shoot another human without a good reason.

"No, sir," the Master Chief finally replied. "There were enemy casualties. And we had to blow their cargo bay to escape."

"So," the Admiral said, tapping his fingers on the arm of the Captain's chair, "they're not going to be happy to see a UNSC ship knocking on their front door?"

"I wouldn't expect so, sir."

"Faint emissions on the D-band detected," Cortana said. "Come about to new heading three-three-zero." "Aye," Haverson said. "Three-three-zero." "It's gone, now," she said, "but I definitely heard something" "Keep on this course," Admiral Whitcomb ordered. "We'll

run it down."

"There's one thing I don't understand," Haverson said as he squinted at the forward displays. "Why are these people even here?"

"Pirates and insurgents," the Admiral answered. "They hijack UNSC ships, sell arms, and trade black market commodities. You're probably too young to remember, Lieutenant, but before the Covenant War not everyone wanted to be part of an Earth-ruled government."

"Rebels?" Haverson said. "I've read about them. But why continue to stay separated from UNSC forces when the Covenant War started? Surely their chances of survival would be better with us?"

The Admiral snorted a derisive laugh. "Some people didn't want to fight, son. Some just wanted to hide... in this case, literally under a rock. Maybe they think the Covenant won't bother with 'em." A smile flickered across his face. "Well, we're about to change all that for them."

The elevator doors parted, and Dr. Halsey stepped onto the bridge. She removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She looked to the Master Chief as if she had just retimed from an intense fight—fatigued and shocked. He noticed a single drop of blood on the lapel of her wrinkled white lab coat.

"She's fine," Dr. Halsey whispered. "Linda will make it. The flash-cloned organs took."

The Master Chief exhaled the breath he had been unconsciously holding. He glanced over to Fred, who nodded to him. John nodded back. There were no words to express how he felt.

One of his closest teammates, his friend, someone he had thought dead... was alive again.

"Thank you, Doctor Halsey," he said.

She waved her hand dismissively, and there was a strange look in her eyes—almost as if she had regretted the success of her operation. "Damn good news," Admiral Whitcomb said. "We could use another hand on deck."

"Hardly," Dr. Halsey replied, suddenly looking much more alert. "She'll need at least a week to recover—even with the biofoam and steroid accelerants I have her on. Then she'll barely be able to get on her feet. She won't be combat-ready."

Gettysburg-Ascendant Justice moved into the plane of the asteroid belt, and three rocks appeared on the screens.

"This region is the source of the D-band signal," Cortana told them. "There are three possible candidates based on the size parameters you gave me, Chief."

"Which one is it?" the Admiral asked. "Only one is rotating fast enough to generate a three-quartergravity internal environment," Cortana replied.

"That's it," the Master Chief replied and nodded toward the central display. The rock hadn't changed much in the last twenty years. Was it possible the place had been abandoned? The D-band transmission that Cortana detected could have been an automated signal, weak from years of drain on a single battery . . . or the lure for a trap.

"Admiral?"

"I know, Chief," he said. "They've baited the hook and we're taking it... at least that's what it's supposed to look like." He chuckled. "Cortana, power up every turret on our Covenant flagship."

Her holographic body flushed blue-green and she crossed her arms. "Let me remind you, sir, that of the three working turrets, two are offline. I have no way to aim the plasma. The magnetic—"

"I know, Cortana. But they"—the Admiral stabbed a finger at the displays—"don't know that."

"Yes, sir," she said. "Heating them up now."

"Power dropping," Fred warned the Admiral as he peered at the Engineering screens. "Down to forty-four percent."

"Lieutenant Haverson," the Admiral barked, "open a channel on the D-band. It's time we introduced ourselves."

"Aye, sir. Frequency matched and channel open."

The Admiral stood. "This is the UNSC frigate Gettysburg" he barked, his voice full of authority and colored with his Texas accent. "Respond." And then he reluctantly added, "Please."

Static filled the COM. The Admiral waited patiently for ten seconds, and then his boot started to tap on the deck. "No need to play possum, boys. We're not here for a fight. We want to—"

He made a sudden throat-slitting motion toward Haverson, and the Lieutenant snapped off the COM.

Tiny doors appeared in the two-kilometer-wide rock; from this distance they looked no larger than the pores on an orange. A fleet of ships launched, using the asteroid's rotational motion to give their velocities a boost. There were approximately fifty craft: Pelicans modified with extra armor and chainguns mounted on their hulls; sleek civilian pleasure craft carrying missiles as large as themselves; single-man engineering pods that sputtered with arc cutters; and one ship that was fifty meters long with oddly angled black stealth surfaces.

"That's a Chiroptera-class vessel," Haverson said, awed. "It's an antique. ONI decommissioned them all forty years ago and sold them for scrap."

"Is it a threat?" the Admiral asked.

Lieutenant Haverson's forehead wrinkled as he considered. "No, sir. They were decommissioned because they broke down every other mission. They had far too many sensitive components without a central controlling AI. The only reason I recall them at all is that they had the smallest operational Shaw-Fujikawa Translight Engine ever produced. No weapons systems, sir. Like I said, it's not a threat... it's a museum piece."

"But it has Slipspace capability?" Dr. Halsey asked. "Maybe we can use it to get to Earth."

"Unlikely," Haverson replied. "All Chiroptera-class vessels were decommissioned by ONI—critical components removed and the ships' operating systems locked down so tight I doubt even Cortana could reactivate them."

"I wouldn't bet on it," Cortana muttered.

"No weapons," the Admiral said and stared at the blocky geometry of the black ship. "That's all I need to know."

"Their 'fleet,' " Fred interjected, "is deploying and taking up positions around us in a wide arc. Classic formation. They'll flank us."

"There's no real threat from these ships," the Admiral said to himself. "They have to know we know that. So why bother with this show?" He scowled at the displays, and his eyes widened. "Cortana, scan the nearby rocks for radioactive emissions."

"Receiving video feed," Fred announced.

The image of a man flickered on forward screen three. He was clearly a civilian, with long black hair drawn back into a ponytail and a pointed beard extending a full ten centimeters from his chin. He smiled and made an elegant bow. The Chief, for some reason he could not understand, took an instant dislike to him.

"Captain...," the man said in a smooth, resonant tenor voice. "I am Governor Jacob Jiles, leader of this port. What can we do for you?"

"First," Admiral Whitcomb said, "I am not a Captain; I am a Vice Admiral, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations. Second, you will order your fleet to reverse course and get out of my gun-sights before I forget my manners. And third, we insist that you make ready to let us dock on that rock of yours for emergency repairs and refit."

Jiles considered these requests and then threw his head back and laughed. "Admiral, my sincere apologies for the confusion in your rank." He said this with a mocking grin. "As for your other requests, I'm afraid I can't accommodate you today."

"And I respectfully suggest you reconsider, Mister Jiles," the Admiral said in a deadpan tone. "It would be unfortunate for all of us if I have to insist."

"You're in no position to insist on anything." Jiles nodded to someone offscreen.

"Emissions detected!" Cortana said. "Neutron radiation spikes at seven by three o'clock. One by three o'clock. Picking up five more. They've got nukes."

"Hidden in the asteroid field," Admiral Whitcomb muttered. "Very good. At least we're not dealing with fools." "Indeed. We are not fools," Jiles replied. "We have survived

the long arm of Imperial Earth and Covenant intrusions." Someone off camera handed Jiles a data pad with a radar silhouette of Gettysburg-Ascendant Justice; numbers and symbols crawled alongside the picture. He hesitated and crinkled his nose, appearing confused at the odd configuration of mated craft. "We are also not foolish enough to use overwhelming force when it isn't required. Your 'ship' is ready to fall apart on its own. I hardly think we need to waste one of our precious and expensive nuclear devices to stop you."

Whitcomb set his hands on his hips. "You need to rethink the tactical situation, Governor," he growled. "Cortana, find me a target—a rock the same size as this 'gentleman's' base."

"Done," she replied.

"Burn it," he ordered.

"Aye, sir!"

A lance of plasma appeared on the starboard side of Ascendant Justice, cut through space, and blasted the surface of a three-kilometer-long stone tumbling through the asteroid belt. Its surface heated to orange, yellow, and then white, sputtering blobs of molten iron and jets of vapor that caused the massive stone to spin faster. The plasma cut through the rock in a wide arc—punched through the opposite side. The uneven internal heat caused the rock to fracture and explode into fragments. The debris pinwheeled away, leaving helical trails of cooling iron and glittering metallic gas in its wake.

"Keep number two and three turrets hot," the Admiral said, "and target their base."

"Done, sir."

The mocking smile had vanished from Jiles's face and the color had drained from his golden skin. "Perhaps I was too hasty," he said. "Where are my manners? Please come aboard and join me as my honored guest. Bring your staff, too." He made a quick motion to his crew off camera.

The ships surrounding the Gettysburg turned and maneuvered back toward the rotating asteroid. "Join me for dinner and we can discuss what you need. You have my word that no one will be harmed." Admiral Whitcomb chuckled. "I have no doubt about that,

Mister Jiles." He turned to Cortana. "If we're not back in thirty minutes, blast them all to hell."

The Master Chief linked mission telemetry with Cortana as Jiles's men met them in the landing bay—six men dressed in black coveralls with old MA3 rifles slung over their shoulders. They hesitated, then took tentative steps toward the Covenant dropship. The Chief didn't blame them—he'd have been careful, too, if he were moving toward an armed enemy vessel. One fear-induced pull of the trigger from any one of them, however, and this greeting would turn into a bloody firefight.

He closed off his external speakers and asked, "Cortana: tactical analysis."

Cortana replied: "The asteroid is a typical ferric oxide composite. It's reinforced with a layer of Titanium-A armor. The armor is well camouflaged, but I spotted it with the Gettysburg's deep radar. They have a few sections with ablative undercoats as well. Radar's bouncing off those sections—so would Covenant sensors. Impressive."

Governor Jiles strolled across the deck, flipped his black fur cap over one shoulder, and shook Admiral Whitcomb's hand. Jiles nodded to Haverson. His smile vanished, however, when he looked at the Master Chief and Fred in their MJOLNIR armor. Jiles recovered his grin and bowed low to Dr. Halsey.

"There are half a dozen guards armed with old MA-3 rifles and concealed plasma pistols," Cortana whispered. "I'm also picking up a fireteam often in the side passages, watching."

"I saw them," the Chief muttered. "They're overwatch and backup, just in case. No problem." "This way, please," Jiles said, and with a flourish he led them through a narrow corridor.

The Chief took one last look at the docking bay. It seemed smaller than he remembered it. Twenty years ago he and his team had blown off the external doors, stolen a Pelican, escaped, and left a dozen men dead on the deck.

His team had accomplished that mission without MJOLNIR armor. It hadn't been developed yet—so there was no way anyone here could have known that John and Fred were part of the team that had extracted the last "governor" of the base, the traitor Colonel Watts. Yet Jiles's guards glared at John as if they knew everything.

As the Master Chief stepped into the corridor, Cortana informed him: "This passage is from a UNSC cargo vessel, ripped out and reinforced with a bulkhead every ten meters. Airtight and tough. This place can take a lot of damage before buckling."

"Good place for an ambush, too," the Master Chief said, and kept one eye on his motion tracker. They were being followed. Three contacts behind them, and three ahead, keeping pace.

The Master Chief had an urge to step in front of the Admiral and Dr. Halsey and clear the passage with a burst of fire. But this situation required diplomacy, something John was ill suited for. He wished the Admiral had taken John's suggestion to bring more Spartans with him. Or at least to have two of them infiltrate while the Admiral and this Jiles spoke.

They were led to a circular room. Half the far wall retracted, revealing thick red velvet curtains, which also slowly pulled away and exposed the half-meter-thick windows that overlooked the asteroid field. Beyond was a gentle ballet of rocks tumbling, rotating, and bouncing off one another in slow motion.

Men carried in a long table, threw a white silk cloth over it, and smoothed it down. Then a succession of women carried in silver trays heavy with fruit, steaming meats, and chocolates, and a dozen decanters sloshing with amber, ruby, and clear liquors.

Padded chairs were brought in for them all. "Please." Jiles motioned toward Dr. Halsey and he pulled out a chair for her. "Relax and sit down."

The Master Chief took up a position by the door where he had a clear view of the entire room. Fred made sure the corridor was empty and then sealed the door.

The Chief checked behind the curtains for hidden men, surveillance devices, or false passages.

"Cortana?" he whispered.

"Looks clear," she said. "I'm not detecting anything. Walls are half a meter of Titanium-A." "We're clear," the Master Chief told the Admiral. Dr. Halsey finally sat in the proffered chair, smoothed her

skirt, and Jiles gently slid the chair under her. He offered her a plate of plump strawberries, which she graciously declined. Haverson took one of the strawberries, however, and bit into it. "Delicious," he remarked.

Jiles inclined his head. "Our hydroponics facility—"

"With respect, Governor, there's no time for chitchat," Admiral Whitcomb said. "The clock's ticking. In more ways than you might realize."

Jiles sighed and sat in a chair covered in gold leaf and black velvet. He threw his legs over one of the chair's arms and laced his hands behind his head. "You have my complete and full attention, Admiral."

"Good," Whitcomb said, frowning at Jiles's disregard for the seriousness of their predicament.

Admiral Whitcomb laid it out for him in short, easy-tounderstand sentences: the fall of Reach, the Covenant's search for an alien technology, the chase and battle in Slipspace, and the unclassifiable radiation that would lead the Covenant through Slipspace. . . to here.

As he spoke, Governor Jiles set his feet onto the floor, and his relaxed position solidified. He leaned forward and set his elbows on the table. His congenial smile slowly tightened into a scowl.

"Bloody Elisa!" he shouted, jumped to his feet, and swept a decanter off the table. The glass shattered and ruby-colored brandy spattered across the hardwood.

John and Fred had Jiles instantly in their gunsights, but the Admiral held up his hand.

" 'Bloody Elisa'?" the Chief asked Cortana.

"The patron saint of vacuum," the AI replied. "She's popular among civilian pilots." "I'd guess," the Admiral told Jiles, "that we have less than a day before they find us." "And what," Jiles said slowly, controlling his anger, "do you suggest / do about it?"

"That's the simple part of all this, Governor. You can help us, or you can try to kill me and my crew, and sell our ships for whatever the black market will bear. They should yield quite a profit... provided the Covenant let you live long enough to cash in."

The Admiral grabbed a decanter, poured a glass of wine, took a sip, and nodded appreciatively. "Now, assuming you manage to outwit our ship's AI—which I very much doubt—and assuming further you somehow disable our ship's weapons before our AI blows your base to atoms—which I also doubt—then you'll have a Covenant fleet to contend with. And I don't think they're going to be sociable, sit down, drink your wine, and discuss this like gentlemen."

Jiles placed his face into his hand and rubbed his temples.

"Maybe you're thinking," the Admiral said, "that you've kept this operation of yours hidden this long. From the UNSC. From the Covenant. Why should this be any different? Well, we found you easily enough. I don't think the Covenant will blink at overturning every rock in this asteroid belt to find you."

Governor Jiles picked up a new bottle and filled a glass to the brim. He downed the drink in one gulp. "And the other option?" he asked coldly. "I help you? And together we fight the Covenant? If they come in the force you claim, what difference will it make?"

"If you help us," the Admiral said, "get my ship repaired so we can make the jump to Earth, I'll evacuate all your people. I promise you and your crew amnesty."

Jiles laughed. His cordial smile returned, and he asked, "Do you have any proof of any of this? That the mighty Reach is gone? That you have a new alien technology? Or that the Covenant are on their way here?"

"Chief!" Cortana cried in alarm. On his helmet's heads-up display, a schematic of the Eridanus system appeared. A NAV marker flashed near the third planet. It expanded into the familiar curved radar silhouette of a Covenant cruiser.

"We have company," the Master Chief said. He strode to the window and pointed. "There." The blue glow of Covenant engines flared as the ship came about and accelerated toward the asteroid belt. "There's your proof, Governor," Admiral Whitcomb growled.